Were the mercenaries sent for the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia?

We investigated the claims that Turkey sent mercenaries affiliated with Syrian National Army to Azerbaijan by tracing some images on social media and planes.

25/10/2020 10:27 15 min read

This article is more than 2 year old.

The tension between Azerbaijan and Armenia turned into a close combat on 27 September 2020.

The process that started with the joining of Azerbaijan and Armenia to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922 transformed into something else when Nagorno-Karabakh gained the status of an autonomous region under Azerbaijan. This decision, which was never accepted by the Armenian administration, covers a territory of 4 thousand 400 square kilometers remained from the Soviet Union period. According to international law, Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan; however, Armenians, who constitute the majority of the population, oppose the Azerbaijani administration. There is also a resolution of the United Nations regarding Nagorno-Karabakh demanding the withdrawal of Armenian forces from the occupied territories.

The issue, which was swept under the carpet for a long time, flared up with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The first bullets were fired towards the end of the 80's. In the 90's, Armenia occupied a part of Karabakh. There were conflicts between the two countries in 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2016.


Alright, what’s going on today?

In July 2020, an armed conflict took place in the Tovuz part of the region, which had never been involved before. the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Turkey immediately announced, "We strongly condemn the attack carried out by the Armenian armed forces in the Tovuz region of Azerbaijan.” Two months later, the clashes started again and more violently; countries declared a mutual "state of war".

Proxy wars?

On the other hand, some posts shared especially on social media in the last few days caused the spread of some doubts that the war between the two countries is the "proxy war" that we were familiar with in the Middle East in the recent past. According to these posts, the fighters who had previously fought in the ranks of the Syrian National Army or YPG in the Middle East were going to Nagorno-Karabakh. The first was to join the ranks of Azerbaijan and the latter one, to Armenia. In fact, both countries meet in a similar claim.

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Figure 1: Syrian National Army supported by Turkey is in Azerbaijan.

To sum up, it was claimed that there are Russia, Turkey, as well as countries such as Iran and Israel behind the scenes of a close combat between Armenia and Azerbaijan and these fighters were sent to the region by these countries.

Let's first look at the concept of "proxy war." This is a kind of war in which opposing forces fight through a third conflict rather than directly attacking each other. The forces can sometimes use states, sometimes mercenaries or administrations not recognized by the international order. In other words, the existence of soldiers fighting for a certain power for a certain income is known and this tradition makes it necessary to take the claims seriously. 

In the images shared on social media, it is seen that there are armed people behind the pickups. It is claimed that the people in the images went to the front to support Azerbaijan.

Information about the video

It was claimed that the video showed the members of Syria National Army who went to Azerbaijan by the support of Turkey. The date of the video is not old. In the video, the vehicles carrying the fighters are the pickups used by the Syrian National Army before. In the footage, a woman can be heard speaking in Azerbaijani and saying, "May Allah be your helper".

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The pickup claimed to be sent to Azerbaijan (left) and the pickup which Syria National Army used to go to Ras al-Ayn (right)

It is possible to access some information about the location where the video was shot. Some peculiar lights can be seen on the side of the road in the images. These road lights stand out in the news about the joint drills of Turkey and Azerbaijan in July 2020. However, this information cannot be controlled through the maps.

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The lights in the video in the claim (left) and the lights in the video showing the joint drill of Turkey and Azerbaijan (right).

What is known about the Hamza Division and other divisions?

On September 24, 2020, the news was published on the website of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which was established to monitor human rights violations in Syria. According to the news, Turkey sent about 300 mercenaries in Syria to Azerbaijan after Libya. Step News had a headline about the preparation of Turkey for mercenaries to send to Azerbaijan. On September 22, 2020, journalist Lindsey Snell shared a photo on her social media account and said that people in the airplane were the members of  Hamza Division and the division went to Baku via Ankara by the support of Turkey.

On the same date, Al-modo also shared a similar information and wrote about that the commanders of the three divisions supported by Turkey were assigned to organize those who wanted to go to Azerbaijan as of the mid-August.

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When we search the photo by reverse visual search method, we see that it was not on the internet before September 22, 2020, that is, it is not old. The fact that the people in the photograph are wearing summer clothes and masks also show that the photographs cannot be outdated. There are also some clues as to where it was taken. First, it appears that the plane is not a passenger plane. The large interior volume implies the possibility that it is a cargo aircraft.

It was said that Turkey sent mercenaries to Libya before. Also, the airplanes used for it were mentioned. Among them, there are A400M and C130, some of Turkey's largest cargo aircrafts. The small windows with armchairs and iron bars stand out in the photo. It is possible to see the interior photos of the plane when we search the A400M. Somali soldiers trained by Turkey in 2019 were carried by A400M. When we compare it with this photo it appears that both the seats and the window structures are the same. A400M cargo aircraft is also known as 'Koca Yusuf'. Turks staying in Wuhan, China at the beginning of the Covid-19 epidemic were also evacuated by this plane.

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Window and seat covers of the plane with Syrian mercenaries allegedly going to Azerbaijan (left). Window and seat covers of the A400M plane belonging to Turkey and carrying Somali soldiers in 2019 (right).

Looking at the interior view of the C130E aircraft, it can be said that the photo was not taken on this plane.

Snell also uploaded a tape claiming that up to a thousand mercenaries would be transported to Azerbaijan. In the recording, they say, "The plane will take off between the 27th and 30th as planned. Thus, the thousand people who go there will be divided into groups.” We will come back to the discussion on airplanes, but there are some details about the claims.

According to another special report published in Step News on September 24, Syrian groups negotiated the salaries “paid by Turkey” to fight in Azerbaijan. There are also some records attributed to Hüseyin Abdul-Mawla (Ebu Ahmed Kelabrin), the leader of the Hamza Division of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army. The person who is said to be Abdul-Mawla on the record says that every division member who goes to Azerbaijan will be given a salary of up to 2 thousand dollars, and he will receive half of the money himself. Similar sums are always articulated in the wages of these warriors.

A Syrian opposition who spoke to the BBC Arabic said that he was sent to Azerbaijan from the north of Syria with other fighters for $2,000 last week. An anonymous warrior in opposing Syria National Army supported by Turkey who works in Jarabulus talked to BBC Turkish. He said that they registered the names of volunteers to fight supporting Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh and there was a list of thousand people. According to the claims, at the first phase, nearly 250 people from the list gathered in the Hawar Kilis town on the border of Turkey in Syria and then passed to Gaziantep. After that, they were sent to Azerbaijan by a military cargo aircraft provided by Turkey. French President Macron also announced that according to the exact information received on October 1, 2020, Syrian fighters affiliated with jihadist groups passed through Gaziantep and joined the conflict in Karabakh. However, it is not yet known what this exact information is.

Through Google Earth, a street view cannot be obtained from the region. However, the distance between Hawar Kilis and Turkey border is a bit more than 1.5 kilometers. It is possible to cross the border to go to Gaziantep in a short time.

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The connection between Turkey, Libya and Syria National Army

In the first month of 2020, in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, a memorandum was approved, which was stipulating the consignment of soldiers to Libya to support the government of Tripoli. This meant that Turkey was involved in the civil war in Libya. After the approval of the memorandum, another claim appeared except for the sending of Turkish Armed Forces soldiers to go to the region. Accordingly, Syrian opposition groups supported by Turkey, would be sent to Libya as combat forces.

The articles published by Syrian Human Rights Observatory (the SOH) mentioned that Syrian opposition groups who Turkey trained and with whom Turkey fought together in the military operations organized in Syria in recent years were sent to Libya for extra salary. Moreover, the groups claimed to have gone to Azerbaijan today and the groups claimed to have gone to Libya were the same. Like Feylak El Şam, Sultan Murat Brigade. Although there are different numbers regarding how many people went depending on the divisions of the Syrian National Army, President Erdogan admitted that these forces supported the Turkish Armed Forces in Libya.

Meanwhile, air traffic has grown rapidly, especially between Turkey and Libya. Turkey's largest cargo aircraft, A400M and the transport aircraft, C130 were seen forth and back in the airspace frequently. The reason to remind of it here is that the claims today have a similar source.

What do we know about it?

There are countless claims about it on social media. The photographs of the Syrian National Army, air traffic dilemmas like from Turkey to Azerbaijan or aircraft flying from Israel to Armenia, images of those who lost their lives in the divisions...

Let’s look at the evidence that can partly solve the claims.

What is intriguing is whether the groups belonging to Syria National Army went to Azerbaijan by the support of Turkey. Especially, it is possible to access social media posts of members of groups such as Hamza Division and Sultan Murat Division. They share posts very actively. The Commander of the Hamza Special Forces Division is Seyf Ebu Bekir. On these accounts, there is no information about Azerbaijan in the recent posts.

In particular, it is thought that the possible support such as mercenaries or ammunition to go to Azerbaijan and Armenia is provided by the airline. The Airbus A400M and C130 airplanes belonging to Turkey, which are said to be sent to Libya by Turkey, were claimed to fly between Turkey and Azerbaijan on 24 September 2020. That is why the activity in the Azerbaijani airspace is important. We can check this using Flightradar24. According to the information here, an A400M (TUAF728) lands in Baku at around 16:00 on September 24, 2020. The place of departure cannot be seen clearly. In Flightradar24, it can be seen that the plane moved starting from Erzurum. After two hours, the same plane returned from Azerbaijan at around 18:00.

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A400M’s route to Azerbaijan

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On September 24, 2020 at 16:00, the A400M cargo aircraft belonging to Turkey landed in Azerbaijan. (Flightradar24)

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The plane left for Kayseri in two hours. (Flightradar24)

This can be considered as an important clue that the plane was carrying Syrian mercenaries. Another detail is the photograph taken on the plane, which may be temporally compatible with the departure hour of the plane. In the photo, it is seen that there is daylight reflecting through a window of the plane.

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There are other flights to the country that requires attention. One of them is Buraq Air. The company is an airline affiliated with the Tripoli Mitiga International Airport in Libya. It has a flight to Azerbaijan on September 29, 2020.

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During this process, other photos were shared on social media, which were claimed to belong to members of the Syrian National Army.

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There is a website that maps and presents what happened in conflict zones such as Syria and the Caucasus. It is possible to see the photos shared on this website. According to the map, the photos were taken in the region. On September 30, 2020, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Russia also issued a statement about it and announced that they received information about the transfer of mercenaries from Syria and Libya to the Nagorno-Karabakh region and that they were concerned about this.

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The military uniforms in the photos are same as the official uniforms of the Azerbaijani army. It can be said that the location of the soldiers are the official places of the Azerbaijani troops. It is noticed that there are colors of the flag of Azerbaijan in the board seen in the photographs and that a sentence like "Heydər Eliyev" "hər kəs xalqimiz" is written on the board. We can see this sentence and the same pictures of Heydar Aliyev on the official website of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

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The faces of the people in the photo are also visible. However, when we make a visual search, it is impossible to find appropriate matches of these faces.

At this stage of the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, claims that both countries receive support from third countries continue to spread. Although the parties do not make explicit statements, the images spread on social media and the news about the countries provide some information on the issue. The photograph taken in the cargo aircraft has some important clues about that Turkey sent the mercenaries who are members of Syria National Army to Azerbaijan. We can reveal some clues such as that the photo is not old, that the cargo aircraft belongs to Turkey, and that the same plane flew from Turkey to Azerbaijan on 24 September.

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Google search results, the interior of the cargo aircraft A400M
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Euronews, Emmanuel Macron's statement
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Twitter, Hamza Division account
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